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March 2009
 
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Charles de Lint
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

Half World, by Hiromi Goto,
Penguin Group Canada, 2009, Cdn$20.

I LOVE discovering new writers, especially when I come upon their books in manuscript or galley form (prepublication copies that don't have blurbs about the author and story, and have little or no cover art). I get to explore the book with no idea as to what to expect, and no surprises are spoiled. And the pleasure is doubled when the book is as innovative and good as Hiromi Goto's Half World.

But while it's great to discover a new writer, it can be a little embarrassing, too, when it turns out they already have a body of work except they were still completely off your radar.

Such was the case with me for Goto. I thought this was a first novel, but she has four other books out, and what great titles they have: Chorus of Mushrooms. The Kappa Child (which won the Tiptree Award). The Water of Possibility. Hopeful Monsters. I would have tried any of those books just because of their titles.

Half World isn't quite so evocative a title, but it's entirely suited to the book, which mostly takes place in the half world between our world and the one from which spirits are reborn. If you're looking for touchstones, think of China Miéville's Un Lun Dun (for Goto's madcap imagination running wild and how she turns the tropes of fantasy characters on their head), or Neil Gaiman (again for the imagination, but also for how deeply Goto cares about her characters).

The novel opens much like Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon's Mind the Gap, with a young schoolgirl coming home to discover that her mother is missing and nothing of her life to date is really what she thought it was. Safety is gone and danger surrounds her. But from there the books go in very different directions.

I loved Goto's protagonist: Melanie Tamaki, an overweight, unliked girl without a lot of self-esteem who finds herself in the position where she has to save not only her mother and herself, and not only this world of ours, but all three worlds. She feels particularly unsuited to the task, but the delight is in watching her grow into a capable young woman, comfortable in her skin, who makes the right hard choices when it would be so much easier to simply let go and give up.

I'm not sure where Goto got her half world and its imaginative inhabitants (like Mr. Glueskin with his meters-long white tongue, or the girl with a starfish face, or the bridge of crows). The three worlds might be from some obscure myth or bit of folklore, but I think it's safe to say that everything else is hers. What makes it all work—no matter how bizarre the plot turns, the characters, the strange world in which Melanie finds herself—is that we're always grounded by Melanie's point-of-view. Because she finds it all as strange as we would in her shoes, we're willing to accept it as well and come along for the journey.

Half World is an absolute treasure of a book, one of those hidden gems that deserves as wide an audience as possible.

*     *     *

The Knights of the Cornerstone, by James P. Blaylock,
Ace Books, 2008, $23.95.

I didn't realize how much I missed James Blaylock's distinctive, quirky voice until I started this novel. Has it really been nine years since his last book, The Rainy Season? I know there have been a couple of collections and a handful of short stories since then, but I was really surprised to realize we haven't had a new Blaylock novel since 1999.

The Knights of the Cornerstone has a familiar cast. There's the slightly befuddled protagonist, the capable woman, the older men and women with deep, hidden knowledge, and the villains, dastardly and vile, but only slightly more capable than the protagonist. There are also secret societies and family secrets, mysterious artifacts and arcane knowledge about rather obscure things, from books to Biblical references.

But none of that's a bad thing. Reading Blaylock is like putting on a familiar record by a favorite artist (and yes, it has to be vinyl because by this analogy, only vinyl—preferably an old 78— suits the charm of a Blaylock story). You put the record on because you want that voice and instrumentation, that style of music. The same goes for a Blaylock book. It's the distinctive voice we're returning to, the new story told in a way that has charmed us before.

And I don't mean that his stories are repetitive or hopelessly old-fashioned. It's rather the choice between wearing vintage clothing or something from the latest fashion trend, choice being the operative word. Blaylock chooses to tell his stories the way he does, and those of us who are charmed by his voice choose to read them because of that.

It also doesn't mean that his books lack insight into the workings of the human animal. The opposite is true. The difference with his characters is that, unlike many in contemporary fiction, his have a heightened sense of doing the right thing and are willing to sacrifice much if they're called upon to do so.

These are characters who would make good friends, and so we're happy to be in their company. We might wish the protagonist was a bit more forceful, a bit more willing to take charge of a situation, but for all the fantastical elements that peer slyly at us from between the lines of the story, for all the quirks of the characters, Blaylock plays this out as though it were taking place in the real world. And let's face it, most of us wouldn't spring into action when there's a gun pointed in our face.

But as I said, the characters do stand up when they need to, and in the long run, that's what is important. We can only hope that we would do as much in a similar situation.

I realize that Blaylock's books aren't necessarily for everyone, but if you're looking for someone who writes with great heart, who tells a story with great charm and wit, in his own individual fashion, a novel like this might be exactly what you're looking for.

Let's just hope the next book doesn't take as long to come out.

*     *     *

The Age of Entanglement, by Louisa Gilder,
Knopf, 2008, $27.50.

This book is subtitled "When quantum physics was reborn." In it, Louisa Gilder has taken a page from dramatized biographies to explain one of the fundamental concepts of quantum physics (entanglement, the seemingly telepathic communication between separated particles) through re-created conversations between some of the twentieth century's greatest physicists: Einstein, Schrödinger, Oppenheimer, and the like. But though she imagines the face-to-face conversations, they are based on meticulous and thorough research into the letters, memoirs, and scientific papers of the participants.

What this does is allow us an insight into how their theories grew. It wasn't just these brilliant minds coming up with their insights out of nowhere. Rather, it was through conversations with their peers that the theories were hammered out and explored.

I just love the way Gilder humanizes the men at the heart of such studies and makes it possible for people like myself (whose eyes would normally glaze over) to get an actual understanding of quantum mechanics through seeing how it was developed over time. She also provides a number of charming art sketches of some of the book's "characters."

As Matt Ridley (author of Genome) says in a blurb, reading this book, "for a moment I almost thought I understood quantum mechanics." I know exactly how he feels. But regardless of my understanding or not of the actual theories, I was entranced to see scientific minds at work outside of the institutions where one might normally expect to find them, and I think you might be, too.

*     *     *

Material to be considered for review in this column should be sent to Charles de Lint, P.O. Box 9480, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1G 3V2.

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